[Mr. Davids has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web the following comment, which accompanies the description on his site of an autograph manuscript of Macaulay's 1845 parliamentary report on Brunel's plans for a pneumatic railway — a financially disasterous wrong-turn in the development of modern railroading. At the time that Macaulay was drafting this report, Davids points out, he "was also working on the 'History' that was to astonish the world in 1848."]

runel was converted to the ill-fated atmospheric or pneumatic railways, first mooted in 1810, after witnessing a demonstration in Ireland in September 1844. The system, which had been patented in 1838, entailed the use of a cast-iron tube laid between rails, to which carriages were attached by a valve. Pumping stations powered by steam engines at the side of the track forced air out of the tubes, thereby creating a vacuum to one side of the carriages and an "atmosphere" to the other, thus propelling them along. But the whole project was dogged by practical problems, not the least being the difficulty of securing a moveable airtight seal between tube and carriage. Brunel's colleague Daniel Gooch said of it: "I could not understand how Mr Brunel could be so misled. He had so much faith in his being able to improve it that he shut his eyes to the consequences of failure;" George Stephenson called it "a great humbug," and his son Robert compared it to rope-haulage.

The South Devon Railway Company Act received the Royal Assent on 4 July 1844. Brunel was consulted by the directors, and he successfully urged them to adopt the atmospheric system. The atmospheric system never really worked and cost the company an enormous amount of money, much of the equipment being sold as scrap. The South Devon eventually opened as a locomotive-hauled railway in 1849. It became known to Devonians as the "Atmospheric Caper."

A side-note to the Macaulay-Brunel connection: In 1843 Macaulay was observed running along the pavement towards the Athenaeum Club shouting "It's out! it's out!" — everyone knew to what he referred: Brunel had been delivered of the gold coin that had lodged in his throat for fourteen days, a tracheotomy proving less successful than being strapped to a table, turned upside down and struck on the back.

Illustration of a pneumatic railway from the Illustrated London News

Pneumatic railway for passengers at the Crystal Palace. (10 September 1864): 276.

Other attempts to create air-propelled railways

Created 16 December 2005

Last modified 21 November 2015